A Century of Initiatives: Anybody Want to Celebrate?

Posted on 19 September 2011

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By Peter Schrag

There was a lot of hollering these past weeks about the way that SB202 was passed in the closing hours of the 2011 legislative session -- and for good reason. But the bill, which would restrict voting on initiatives and referenda to the state’s biennial general elections, was long overdue.

SB202, by Sen. Loni Hancock of Berkeley, is one of a series of changes proposed this year to an opaque and fatally commercialized initiative process that badly needs reform.

SB 202 was passed by the legislature’s Democratic majority in an 11th-hour “gut and amend” process without hearings or any other proper deliberation. The means, described by one frothing editorial writer as an “end-of session rush job,” were dubious, or worse.

SB202 is no big deal, and it’s hardly a perfect reform. It could increase the leverage of referenda, measures designed to overturn laws passed by the legislature, since any that gets another signatures to qualify for the ballot automatically suspends a law until the next election. If Amazon had qualified its referendum against the state’s internet sales tax law – now suspended – it could have suspended collection of the tax at least until November 2012. And it could confront voters in general elections with still more issues.  

But the end is still very much worthwhile. By eliminating initiatives from primary ballots, when turnouts are always low and partisan fringes tend to dominate, votes on voter-initiated ballot measures will reflect a wider spectrum of the electorate and be a little less prone to manipulation by moneyed interests. For the better part of 60 years, initiatives were always confined to general elections, as the constitution provides.   

What generated particular heat over SB202 was the legislature’s deferral until November 2014 of voter balloting on ACA 4, the complex proposed constitutional amendment writing yet more spending restrictions and formulas into law.

Promising to create yet another “rainy day fund,” it severely caps spending and exacerbates the fatal long-term downward ratcheting of funding for nearly all essential state programs. The charge was that in the dead of night, the legislature’s Democrats, at the behest of their public employee union-friends were hoping to kill ACA 4 altogether.

That may in part be correct, but it’s good policy as well. If  ACA 4, which was part of last year’s budget agreement, is passed by voters it will strangle vital services even more and further restrict the legislature’s ability to respond to the state’s needs.

Again and again in our distrust, we reduce the legislature’s ability to function. Again and again, we complain about gridlock and the legislature’s inability to do the people’s business, increasing the distrust and bringing yet another round of restrictions.

Californians wrote what’s sometimes called I and R, the initiative, referendum and recall, into the state’s constitution on October 10, 1911. Even then there were warnings that the high hopes of its Progressive sponsors were excessive, if not downright illusory. “The money changers —the legions of Mammon and of Satan,” C.K. McClatchy, the editor of the Sacramento Bee, wrote at the time, “these have been lashed out of the temple of the people.”

But as the New York Times predicted a few days after the 1911 vote, the same deep-pockets interest groups that would be “lashed out of the temple of the people” – in 1911, it was the Southern Pacific Railroad in particular – would soon learn to use the new system more effectively than “the people” who were supposed to be its chief beneficiaries.

There’s no certainty whether Gov. Jerry Brown will sign the Hancock bill. He’s already vetoed one small reform, a bill by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier that would have required paid initiative petition signature collectors to wear badges identifying themselves as such. Brown warned that it might be the beginning of a slippery slope to restrictions on all paid political operatives. It might also have been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

At least one other promising change in the initiative process, SB 334, also by DeSaulnier, is also before the governor. It would require the Secretary of State to add a list of the five highest contributors of $50,000 or more supporting each ballot measure to the ballot pamphlet as of 110 days before the election. A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year.

Like many other reforms in the state’s convoluted and often dysfunctional governmental process, this one, too, could have some unintended consequences, causing backers of initiatives to defer funding reports until after the 110-day deadline.

And by not listing major contributors to the campaigns against a measure – probably a logical impossibility given time constraints -- it could work to the disadvantage of initiative sponsors. SB 334 could also add yet more inducements for the creation of dummy committees and other devices to hide the real identity of contributors.

Nonetheless SB 334 would provide some additional information on who paid how much to put a measure on the ballot, especially for voters who don’t have access to the Internet and the state’s public electronic files of campaign contributors.

Half the states in the nation, among them some of best governed, function quite nicely without an initiatives process. And all those that have the initiative allow some sunsetting of statutory measures or legislative amendment after a specified number of years. Only California locks all voter-enacted measures into concrete. And the more we use the process, the more dysfunctional government seems to get. Anybody with the urge to celebrate next month’s centennial of California’s I and R might think about that as well.


Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.

I wonder if there is a correlation (inverse) between population and good government?

Desaulnier is the author of the bill that allows public employees to spike their pensions so their pension payments are greater than their salary.

Democtrats and Republicans pay!